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Symbols

Professor Regina Buccola of Roosevelt University explains the symbols in Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein.

Frankenstein | Symbols

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Light and Darkness

Light is a positive symbol in Frankenstein, representing hope, knowledge or learning, and discovery. Walton introduces the symbol when he describes the North Pole as a place where "the sun is ever visible ... a region of beauty and delight." He asks his sister, "What may not be expected in the country of eternal light?" showing his optimism in science and exploration. When Victor realizes he can create life, he says, "Until from the midst of this darkness a sudden light broke in upon me—a light so brilliant and wondrous, yet so simple." As these examples show, light is associated with knowledge and discovery—positive things.

As Victor's words about the flash of insight that led him to recognize how to create life show, darkness represents ignorance. Later in that conversation, Victor tells Walton that he hoped his discovery would "pour a torrent of light into our dark world." When Victor returns home to Geneva after his brother William's murder, it is during a dark, stormy night that he sees the Monster. That vision convinces him that the Monster is linked to the murder; his darkness (ignorance of the Monster's involvement) is dispelled by light (the flash of lightning that reveals the Monster). Darkness is also a symbol for evil. Elizabeth's letter to Victor recounting the news of William's death speaks of "the dark side of human nature." Finally, darkness symbolizes emptiness and despair, as shown by the descriptions of Victor's dark depressions. It is into darkness that the Monster disappears as the book closes.

Fire

Fire is the dual-edged sword of light; it can sustain life by heating food, providing warmth, and ensuring protection from wild animals. But fire also causes pain, death, and destruction, as shown when the Monster uses fire to destroy the De Laceys' cottage. The Monster discovers the dual nature of fire when he says, "When night came again, I found, with pleasure, that fire gave light as well as heat; and that the discovery of this element was useful to me in my food." Overcome by pleasure at the warmth, the Monster says, "I thrust my hand into the live embers, but quickly drew it out again with a cry of pain." The Monster also intends to use the destructive power of fire to destroy himself, thereby eliminating any memory of him from the world. As with scientific knowledge, fire can both help and harm. The fire symbol also recalls the Prometheus myth, as he brought fire to humans.

Adam and Satan

The Monster is both symbolized by Adam, the first man, and Satan. Victor creates him, and he is the first—and only—of his kind. Mary Shelley brings in allusions to Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost, the biblical story of the fall of humanity, from the beginning of the novel, and the Monster seems identified with Adam in the cited lines that serve as the novel's epigraph. The connection is carried out in several aspects of the book, including the Monster's explicit identification of himself with Adam when he recounts his history to Victor and says, "I ought to be thy Adam." In addition, like Adam, the Monster is curious about the world and desires a mate. In contrast, the Monster is also Satan, cast out of heaven. Like Satan, the cast-aside Monster lives in hell (what the world has become after he is rejected). He is also like Satan in being fallen; Victor hoped to make him beautiful and magnificent. Instead, he is hideous, a lesser version than the creator wished. The Monster's fallen state can also be seen—from Victor's perspective—in violent revenge.

In this interpretation, Victor is allied with God, the creator. Victor makes the monster; he gives it life. But Victor rejects his creation, abandoning any responsibility for it. (God punishes his creation, Adam, for disobedience.) Here the Adam-Satan symbol takes a twist, for the Monster who murders is also capable of kindness and compassion. He feels the De Laceys' love and essential goodness; he saves the life of the drowning girl. Victor, however, shuns his creation. It could be argued that he casts the Monster out, as God cast Adam out of the garden, but Victor is actually the one who flees after creating the Monster. In a sense he, too, is Adam, ashamed and horrified at having partaken of the forbidden fruit of hoisting himself into the role of creator. The plaintive epigraph could be his words, as well as the Monster's, as he laments being brought into the world and allowed to do evil.

Questions for Symbols

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